Although mystical experiences, by definition, are beyond the capacity of words and images, this did not discourage late medieval authors and artists from describing them. In this book, Muir discusses how texts and pictures promoted mystical marriage with the divine. As she states in her introduction, Origen of Alexandria, already in the third century, interpreted the Song of Songs as an allegory of the love between Christ and the Christian soul.
The desire for mystical marriage intensified during the twelfth century through the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St.-Thierry, who addressed their love for God in far more emotionally charged language. In his commentary on the Song of Songs, Rupert of Deutz extended Origen’s allegory to include the Virgin Mary in the role of Sponsa Christi. In taking vows, women not only became nuns, they became, like the Virgin, brides of Christ. Late medieval female mystics, such as Marie d’Oignies, Hadewijch of Brabant, and Mechthild of Magdeburg, often described their longings for God with erotic overtones. By contrast, male mystics frequently addressed their desire with less passionate zeal. Words and images were used to promote the ideal of mystical marriage. Particular figures served as models for those longing to become spiritually wedded to Christ. Each chapter of Muir’s book addresses a specific individual who served as a model for those seeking mystical love to imitate.
Chapter 1 focuses on St. Catherine of Alexandria. According to legend, the infant Christ placed a wedding ring on the finger of St. Catherine to signify their spiritual union. This ceremony is often represented in depictions of the Virgo inter Virgines. For late medieval nuns, St. Catherine and the ritual of the ring had special significance. At their ordination, these women received wedding bands, symbolizing their lifelong commitment and fidelity to Christ.
St. Agnes of Rome is discussed in Chapter 2. According to Muir, one-third of the images representing St. Agnes show her mystical marriage to the infant Christ. In the majority of these pictures, however, St. Agnes has already received the ring. Depictions of the saint were particularly popular in the region of Utrecht, which contained many of her relics. Nonetheless, Muir suggests that the mystical writings of Geert Grote and Thomas à Kempis also may havatplayed a significant role in promoting St. Agnes as Christ’s bride.
The third chapter concentrates on St. John the Evangelist. According to legend, St. John was the bridegroom at the Marriage at Cana. He left his bride, however, to follow Christ. St. John apparently rejected his earthly spouse for a spiritual one. In numerous representations, St. John is shown sleeping in the arms of Christ. Their right hands are often conjoined (dextrarum iunctio), a gesture readily associated with marriage ceremonies since antiquity. Despite being male, Christ’s most beloved disciple served as an effective model of spiritual love for St. Gertrude of Helfta, Margaret Ebner, and other female mystics. St. John, unlike Sts. Catherine and Agnes, is not rendered in conjunction with a ring and Christ is shown as an adult rather than as an infant. More importantly, the relationship between Christ and St. John is represented with greater physical and emotional intimacy.
In Chapter 4, Muir turns to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The twelfth-century monk is often depicted embracing the crucified Christ. In these images, Christ miraculously bends down from the cross into the arms of an awaiting saint. Although textual sources state that the vision of St. Bernard’s mystical embrace occurred within an ecclesiastical setting, in the majority of visual representations, the event occurs either outdoors or in an indeterminate location. Nonetheless, these images encouraged pious beholders to imitate St. Bernard in their desire for a loving embrace.
The final chapter addresses the author of the Horologium Sapientiae(1334), Blessed Henry Suso. Within this text, Suso declares his love and eventual marriage to Eternal Wisdom. The gender of Eternal Wisdom is traditionally feminine, but in Suso’s writing, Wisdom is also masculine. Wisdom speaks as the suffering Christ in a male voice and refers to Suso as his bride. In visual representations, Suso is always shown as a man. Although he is sometimes crowned with rose garlands, an apparent attribute of his status as Christ’s bride, it is important to note that in the late middle ages, both men and women wore chaplets to signify love. According to Muir, there is no record that either monks or nuns hoped to wed Wisdom as Henry Suso had.
In her conclusion, Muir cautions against superimposing contemporary notions of embracing unto late medieval culture. The gesture of love may have seemed too erotic in regard to the relationship between Christ and female saints. Although Christ embraces women in some pictures, representations of the ring ceremony are far more commonplace. To Muir’s understanding, a loving hug between men posed less of a threat. Images of Christ embracing men may call attention to a power relation between a protector and the protected, but they need not elicit a homoerotic bond. Although Muir rightly notes that not all embraces need be sexual, she seems to underestimate that in matters of love, subtle distinctions between eros, philia, and agapecan easily be lost. Any desire to unite with someone else involves an element of risk and this is no different in regard to the divine.
As Muir suggests, bridal mysticism offered a means to experience God directly, potentially bypassing ecclesiastical authority. Not surprisingly, the Church strove to keep mysticism under its control. Mystics who posed a danger to church doctrine were quickly deemed heretics or witches. However, there is no need to see mysticism and church doctrine or mysticism and the sacraments as necessarily in conflict. For instance, Muir seems to downplay the important nexus between mysticism and the Eucharist. Not only did participation in the sacrament offer a means to internalize the divine, it also could stimulate mystical experiences. Encountering the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament could foster the desire for a closer relationship with the sacred. Despite this minor criticism, Muir deserves much praise for revealing the variety of ways that visual images could evoke mystical experiences among those who longed to marry Christ.